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Reviewing CCCC 2000: Science Fiction And The Social Ethics Of Technology (B.23)

How can a roundtable that talks about Orson Scott Card, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Nearly Roadkill and cannibalism be anything but fascinating? The only thing that hurt the presenters at this session was the time constraint that seems to have kept many of them from detailing the most significant points in their presentations.

Among the presenters, Peter Sands, Dawn Hayden and Julia Jasken seemed most adversely effected by time. Nevertheless, their presentations brought out some interesting points. Sands, whose piece was the most critical of technology, focused on the metaphor of cannibalism in science fiction which is found in literature dealing with the transfer of consciousness from the physical body to the electronic one. Such a transfer, he points out, breaks down the Cartesian body/mind duality in ways that may threaten distinctions between technology and humanity-threats that must be recognized before we go blithely running into using technology.

Dawn Hayden and Julia Jasken focused on the ways works of science fiction like Nearly Roadkill give students and teachers safe, non-political places where they can discuss issues of sexuality, identity and technology as well as envision new social possibilities. Hayden pointed out that such fictional works introduce complex and politically charged topics that can help students push their thinking about gender and power issues. Jasken claimed that feminist science fiction confronts contradictions of gender identity, that the fictional world resonates with students' lives and that it helps students to build a vocabulary for identity formation.

Collin Brooke, in his intriguing presentation, asserted that hypertext has not yet come into its own but is being used to serve old media. He referred to an Orson Scott Card short story which takes place in a library with an electronic catalogue that uses hypertext links. In the story, librarians working with the catalog create new and exciting connections among different pieces of writing. Brooke notes that, in contrast, authors using hypertext today are not employing it to make fresh and surprising links but are instead using it like footnotes, and urged his audience to think about using hypertext in more creative and interesting ways.

Beth Kolko's presentation was the most fascinating. She pointed out that William Gibson's definition of cyberspace in Neuromancer--as "a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system"--limits it to being a landscape of data and makes his characters mere consumers of information. Since the way we see the Web will determine the way we use it, she asserts that more expansive visions of cyberspace such as those created in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, where characters venture into the system for information and interaction may be more profitable. Her essential point-that if teachers look at texts that present cyberspace as both a source of information and a global communications tool they will discover more pedagogical possibilities in the internet-made it seem imperative that Stephenson's book and others like it become must-reads for anyone teaching or learning with technology.

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